ith his unfinished series, The Perseus Cycle, Sir Edward Burne-Jones illustrated a classical story as told in William Morris' Earthly Paradise (Wood, 122). An interesting paradox in a number of these paintings is the beautiful, elegant depiction of creatures generally noted for their ugliness. Despite the reputation for ugliness of the Graiae-sisters of Medusa supposedly born with grey hair and only a single eye and tooth among the three of them (www.encyclopedia.com)-Burne-Jones paints them in Perseus and the Graiae (1892) as lovely young maidens with dark hair piled upon their heads. The viewer can only see one of the sisters' faces, since the other two have their backs facing outwards, yet this figure has smooth pale skin, a delicate nose and lips, and a somewhat typical, sharply defined Pre-Raphaelite chin, as in numerous Rossetti paintings. The Graiae wear robes that drape over their youthful bodies in a schematized, rigid way that adds to the distinctive sense of movement in the painting. Their dainty hands, and in the case of the figure on the left her arms and feet as well, emerge out of the cloth, clearly reminding the viewer of her feminine youthfulness and beauty.
Similarly, in The Finding of Medusa and The Baleful Head (1887), Burne-Jones represents the infamous gorgon of Greek mythology -- a creature so ugly that to gaze upon her turned one to stone-as a striking yet distinctly not unattractive young woman. although he paints her wispy, wild hair a grayish color in the earlier of these two scenes and her face a pale, icy tone, her features are pretty, if furrowed in concern, and her body tall, slender and commanding. Likewise, in the second of the two scenes, Medusa's disembodied head, reflected in the water, appears lovely and serene, death having eased her earlier worried expression. Rather than an image of horror, Andromeda gazes, evidently moved, upon the pretty reflection of the gorgon, scarcely less beautiful than Andromeda's own. Even the sea-monster in The Doom Fulfilled (1888) has an appealing aesthetic quality, its shimmering curves representing dangerous strength and power only to be conquered by the even more glistening figure of Perseus, his armor sharply reflecting light.
Burne-Jones' beautification of the grotesque goes hand in hand with his general idealization of figures. Far from the detailed depiction of lifelike figures embodied in the paintings of Sir John Everett Millais (such as Christ in the House of His Parents, 1850) or William Holman Hunt's The Finding of the Savior in Temple (1854-60), Burne-Jones does not seem to feel compelled to capture reality in the dirt on figures' legs or the sweat on their skin. Rather, his figures have smooth, pale skin, constant in tone, with only subtle modeling to suggest their physical weight and presence. The sea nymphs in Perseus and the Sea Nymphs, who stand in a shallow puddle reminding the viewer of their origin, have pretty faces almost identical to one another, reflecting the extent of Burne-Jones' idealizing tendencies.
In addition to the physical loveliness of the figures in the Perseus Cycle, Burne-Jones' depiction of figures' poses and movements further the beauty of his paintings. Providing the focal points and lightest portions of The Rock of Doom (1888) and The Doom Fulfilled (1888), the nude figure of Andromeda stands to the side of an actively moving Perseus. although providing a relatively still balance to Perseus' physical activity, Andromeda's body is vividly alive, her curving, serpentine pose suggesting her body's potential for movement, and simultaneously alluding to Gothic artists' S-shaped Madonnas and other figures. The pale nudes in these paintings, as well as in The Calling of Perseus, stand out in sharp, bright relief against the blues, greys and browns that dominate all of the Perseus Cycle paintings with the exception of the last one, which employs richer, warmer colors.
The poses of the sea nymphs strongly recall Sandro Botticelli's three graces in La Primavera (c. 1482, Florence, Uffizi), with the imitation of the viewer's position relative to the figures, the visibility of their faces, the manner in which the figures touch each other (slightly modified by Burne-Jones), and the physical stance of the each figure. The movements of the sea nymphs, as well as those of the Graiae in the painting discussed above, have a graceful, flowing quality with curving, interlocking lines and repeated shapes and physical characteristics that suggest a rhythmic, decorative pattern more strongly than living, breathing people or creatures. These repetitive, elegant tableaus seem almost to reflect the patterns that artists such as William Morris produced for textiles and wallpaper for Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (later simply Morris & Co.). Burne-Jones takes the idea of a pattern even farther with the backdrop of foliage in The Baleful Head — a detailed, regular arrangement of leaves and apples.
Why does Burne-Jones represent ugly things in such lovely, physically pleasing ways? Bill Waters discusses Burne-Jones' continued focus on exquisite beauty, even as it was accompanied at times by gloom and pessimism (Waters, "A Quest for Love").
Does the beautiful depiction of ugly creatures compromise the ability of the Perseus Cycle to effectively convey its story? What effect does this have on the entire series, and does it make the paintings more or less able to stand on their own as decorative objects?
Burne-Jones' aesthetic choices v in particular his color palette, pattern-like compositions, and idealization of his figures — reflect the changing direction of Pre-Raphaelitism. What aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism's earlier incarnation remain in Burne-Jones' paintings?
Waters, Bill. Burne-Jones — A Quest for Love. [Works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones Bt and Related Works by Contemporary Artists]. London: Peter Nahum, 1993.
Last modified 26 October 2004